Chillin’ Villain Empire (CVE) has been around longer, made more music and therefore influenced more people than they can possibly get proper credit for. True underground hip-hop pioneers, they have been an active group since the late 1980’s, with a fluid membership coming and going around the core of Riddlore, NgaFsh and Trey Loc. CVE are revered among fans of the L.A. underground for their unmistakable blend of pinpoint multisyllabic rhyming over menacing, mostly sample-free beats.
Though they ran the collective record label Afterlife Records for many years along with their Project Blowed-affiliated peers, CVE’s music has always been somewhat hard to find. A new compilation from African label Nyege Nyege aims to give new listeners an entry point into this vast sea of music, and dropped a tightly focused group retrospective last week, available on DSPs and, thankfully for aficionados, on limited vinyl.
Nyege Nyege founder Arlen Dilsizian is a massive fan of the group and has become close with founding member Riddlore since initially becoming entranced by the group’s signature sound. “C.V.E somehow always signified something beyond the possible for us,” he said. “Their stream of consciousness lyrics remained engaged and political, and there was a road level avant-gardism to their productions that we were fascinated by.”
Listening to the collection We Represent Billions, which covers songs made from 1993-2003, it is striking how futuristic the music still sounds. Geographically surrounded in their home base of L.A. by more earthy and so-called conscious acts on one side and the cinematic gangster rap that took over the world on another, CVE took their sound in an entirely different direction. Their drum machine and synth-based production style harkens back to the electro rap stylings of L.A.’s first wave of hip-hop pioneers, and is welded to the group’s signature lyrical chop – a mindblowing approach to pointalist fast rap where bragging, boasting, storytelling, and at times, outright threats are delivered as complex multisyllabic verses that require multiple listens to fully understand.
Nyege founder Arlen summarizes the appeal thusly: “We aimed to showcase CVE’s sound from the mid-90’s to the early 2000’s selecting tracks that sounded the most ‘forward’ to us for their time. Tracks that combined their mind-bending futuristic lyrics, West Coast Surrealism and proto-grime electro rap productions.”
This collection feels bound to drive a conversation about reconsidering CVE’s place in the hip-hop canon. There are very few, if any, groups who have been releasing music and performing since the late 80’s and are still active. Very few groups have released so much material across formats through their own independent label. Very few groups who can stand lyrically toe to toe with feared rhymers like their peers in Freestyle Fellowship. Very few groups have spent decades making aggressive music that mirrors the tumultuous times we are living in as well as CVE’s, and this new compilation should help cement CVE as the unsung heroes they are.
“C.V.E represents to us everything we hold valuable and exciting in the kind of music we release and as an important part of American hip-hop history we felt it deserves as much exposure as possible to a new generation of music lovers who might not be aware of this music.” says Arlen Dsilizian.
I spoke with founding CVE member Riddlore about the group’s history, influences, and impact recently.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Riddlore: I’m in the foundation. My journey’s at the beginning. It started with me and my partner, JB Nice. He does a lot of the artwork for us still. He stopped rapping. He’s a teacher now, but he’s still involved in the group.
So me and him started it back when we met in 1984, linked up and started rapping together. We battled each other on Venice Beach one day. I was with one of my friends and he was with one of his friends. I left that battle telling my friend, ‘I think he got me!’ He was like, ‘nah man, you served him!’ He said the same thing to his friend, ‘I think he got me!’ and his friend was like, ‘nah!’ So I said if I ever see him again, I’m gonna holler at him. When I saw him again, we talked and we started from there. We started rapping together.
We went through a few names and iterations before we got to CVP, which was Chillin’ Villain Posse. But we started that in like, 1986, is when we came up with the name Chillin’ Villains. That was from a line I wrote in a rap, where I just said ‘chillin’ like a villain’ and he just keyed in on that line and was like, ‘wait a minute! That’s it. Chillin’ Villain.’ From that, he started calling me The Riddler. He gave me that name as a villain and him, JB Nice, as a sentence, like ‘J, be nice.’
L.A. rap was still pretty electro-based at that time. Who were you listening to? What were your influences? And how did you guys arrive at your particular unique style?
Riddlore: Basically, I grew up in L.A., kind of in the dance scene too. There wasn’t a lot of hip-hop played at the parties. It was played, but they would slow it down and people wouldn’t dance as much. The stuff that was danced to more was the more electronic stuff, which in L.A., it was a label called Techno Hop that put out a lot of upbeat [stuff]. It was hip-hop, but more upbeat dance, based off of Planet Rock and stuff like that. So that was a big influence on the style of music.
L.A. had a car culture, and it seemed like the electronic [music] sounded bigger and better than some of the sample-based stuff that was coming out in hip-hop. Groups like Whodini had a big influence on West Coast hip-hop, because their stuff was more synthesizer-based. The Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow production, it sounded like “Basketball” and it was all stuff that I would say influenced the Bay Area and Too $hort and everything. That style, more so, is what we ran with on the West Coast. I think it was because of our car culture out here, that we listened to music in the cars too.
Who are the main sonic architects of CVE? How were the beats made and who do you feel is responsible for the overall sound?
Riddlore: I would say me and Fish are mostly responsible for the sound. JB a little bit too, because he did a little bit of the production early on, but we didn’t have a producer. I was a rapper and a DJ. Fish was a rapper and a DJ. We used to have to try to get beats from people and that just didn’t work, so we met EBO, who’s a part of the group too, one of the producers, and he taught us. He had a Mirage sampler, drum machine. He taught us how to use all of that equipment and being a DJ, it was kinda easy for me to sample and get the concept of it and stuff. We started off using more samples, and then we started mixing this synth with samples and then went more just synth instead of samples, because you didn’t have to worry about clearing samples. I liked the freedom of being able to make stuff, but me and Fish basically were the sound of CVE. We were both DJs already.
Let’s talk about your vocal style, the chop. It’s a very specific style associated with The Good Life and Project Blowed. It’s very pinpoint, very melodic, but within verse structure. Did that develop earlier than I might be giving it credit for, like before The Good Life open mic started happening?
Riddlore: Yeah, it was developing earlier than The Good Life, but that’s where it all gelled and came together with a lot of different groups coming there and contributing their parts to it, and from there it took on a new direction, but it’s always been a part of it. I’ve always rapped fast, that’s kind of our thing, as many syllables as possible.
But not just syllables for syllables’ sake! It makes sense…
Riddlore: Yeah, because there’s some rappers who do that and I hate it when it’s just wordy and too many words, just for the sake of the style without having something to say with it, you know?
Absolutely. I think we’ve all listened to a fair amount of that style of rapping and actually, that’s not the wave anymore and it’s kind of nice. Something that struck me listening to the compilation today and something that I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time is, when you were developing something like ‘Calistylics’ and your Good Life era stuff, it seems very routine-based, so would you have to practice a lot? Would you gear up for those Thursdays? Would you try to come up with new routines to then display at The Good Life, or am I getting it wrong?
Riddlore: Yeah, everybody did that! That was a part of the program. Like, if you go home after that Thursday night and probably start working on something that has something fresh for the next week, you know? But actually, the ‘Calistylics’ song, when Ngafsh made that, I had just made a bunch of beats and then I had gone on tour with Aceyalone and when I came back, he had that.
My take on your guys’ place in the whole Project Blowed universe is that you’re very much high-level rappers, you’ve had socially conscious lyrics, but that CVE and a couple of the other folks represent a little bit more of a street side of that scene. Do you agree with that theory?
Riddlore: Yeah! Because at The Good Life, we had two different, well more than two different, but if you break it down, it’s two major different sides. One side that’s more hood-based, you know? I came up gangbangin’, I came out of gang culture and that life, but I saw that it wasn’t about that life, so my rap always stayed street-orientated, but not promoting that life at all.
That’s an important distinction. I appreciate you bringing that up. There is something menacing about your guys’ music. There’s something with the hard-hitting drums and the synths in the background. There’s an air of danger to it.
Riddlore: Yeah, I mean, we’re villains! So we kept it dark, you know, kind of on the dark side. But the whole term ‘chillin’ villain’ came from us being criminalized by police and society, more so than us actually being the villains, like that label being put on us. So we said, ‘we’re villains that are just chillin’.’ You know, a criminal who hasn’t committed a crime.
Would you tell me about Afterlife Records? How did that get started? You guys have released a ton of music under that banner. Who’s involved with it? It seems to be the primary label home, but it seems fairly loose. Would you agree with that characterization?
Riddlore: Um, it wasn’t super loose. It was a certain amount of groups that were Afterlife. The term ‘Afterlife’ started though, like it was on Thursday night, when we got together after The Good Life and all rode out to any other place, we were like, ‘we’re going to the Afterlife.’ We would call wherever we were going ‘the Afterlife.’ But when the label started Afterlife, it was CV hip-hop clan, The Bastards, Busdriver, OMD, Cypher 7, those were the acts that were Afterlife.
I’ve found, as a hip-hop collector and someone who’s interested in your music, that it was very diffuse. It was very spread out. It was a lot of different tapes, a lot of different CDs. You might be lucky and catch something at a show, but I think one of the reasons that you’re a true underground group is that, especially pre-internet, it was hard to find your music. Do you think that perhaps there was something to that, that kinda made the legend of CVE that helped people think of you guys as a little bit mysterious or hard to connect with, in terms of physical product?
Riddlore: Yeah, I mean, we were kinda like punk rock about it in a kind of way. We were just putting that out, doing it ourselves, and a lot of it, most of it that came out in the early days, was leaked but we never officially put it out. We would give a tape to people who were affiliated with us and other producers and stuff, and it would end up going around the world and be on these tape trades everywhere. We had people like this cat Taktloss, this German rapper, just one day pop up at the shack. He just popped up at our door!
I don’t know how he got the address, actually. I still don’t. He was staying in a hostel in Hollywood, rented a bike, rode a bike in Hollywood to 82nd and Normandy, in the hood where we were, and just showed up at our door.
Was there a time when there were major label scouts coming around? Did you get taken out to dinner? Were there any offers of record deals? Did you guys have that option and decide not to do it, or was that just never really your journey?
Riddlore: There were a few labels interested and people talking to us about it, but it was never our journey. Ngafsh named himself ‘n**** fish’ for that purpose. Like, I can’t get signed with the name ‘n**** fish,’ right?
Though we did have a publishing deal, that we got with Afterlife, through Rhondar publishing, which was a major publishing company. We did that for a few years and that’s how we were able to buy a lot of the equipment, and get stuff started and rollin’, and really deal with that. Because when we had the band, Legion, Adam Salzman, who was in the band, his father was behind Mad TV and Vibe Magazine and Spin Magazine, and him and Quincy Jones were business partners. One day he brought Bob Ezrin to our shack to meet us and he was plugged in with Ron Darian, he liked what we were doing. He got us hooked up with this publishing deal.
Nice! So that was a source of income that wasn’t hand-to-hand physical sales?
Riddlore: Yeah! But without us having to be signed to a label, just basically giving them the rights to our old stuff temporarily, you know? Not even permanent, so we never gave up the rights to our music or anything.
You’re an excellent rapper, I’ve always admired how pinpoint you are. What would you want people reading this to know about your craft? What is your writing process? What is your recording process? How do you get what’s in your head out to the world?
Riddlore: I take it straight from my head, to the track. I don’t write.
No writing? Ever?
Riddlore: I do, but it gets in the way.
It gets in the way, because half the time, when I did write a lot, I would come back to the page the next day and not remember how I was supposed to say it or anything. It was just words on paper. I went back to doing it how I started, which was writing it in my head, remembering it how I wanted it and recording it. Or just sitting in the studio and doing four bars, eight bars at a time, until it’s done. Then write it after I’m done, archive it. But just to go straight to the track is the easiest thing for me.
I don’t know how accurate this is, but on the CVE Discogs page, there’s a ton of names. I’ve always thought that you and Fish were the core of the group. Were there people who came in and out at various times, or who do you consider to be the group now? And were there people who were a part of it for certain tapes or projects and then moved on with their lives? Can you help me understand the roster and how it changed over time?
Riddlore: Yeah! There’s been people who were in it, who never were on songs, you know? Because we’re like a family and there are no ex members of CVE. There’s some people who are inactive, but they’re still CVE. Like on just the one song, ‘What a Pity,’ Big Kev did a part on that. That’s the only song he’s on, but he’s a part of the crew. He’s one of my homies, JB’s best friends. They went to UCLA together and they became good friends. He was always with us and he could rap too, but he was more focused on school and stuff, but he got down for that one song.
There’s also Twice Born, Lord Jabri, DJ Black, who are all part of CVE. They’re all guys who got in the group right before The Good Life era. When JB was at UCLA, we had this thing called The African Brothers Collective, where every Wednesday night, we had these deep meetings where we just talked about basically, the issues of being black in America, and it grew into this massive thing. A lot of people would come, but these are some of the core people there. And these are the same people who started The Good Life.. Rod, Arcane Blaze and Ola, who were also a rap group. He’s Bihal’s son, who started The Good Life.
It all started out of there. We did an album together, out of that core of the African Brothers Collective, that was called Underground Radio and JB did the artwork for it. It was black conscious rap. Basically, it started off with the overtaking of a radio station, like ‘this is WKKK broadcasting…’ We would come in, take over and turn it into an underground hip-hop station.
Wow, I gotta track that down. That sounds amazing.
Riddlore: That Thursday night at The Good Life was called ‘Underground Radio.’ That was the name of the Thursday night and the name of that project.
Were you surprised that the record label Nyege Nyege was interested in putting out some of your music or collecting some of your music, or had you heard of them? How did this process with this particular compilation come to be?
Riddlore: When I was on tour once, when I was in Greece, I met some of the people who are involved with Nyege Nyege now. Not actually Arlen, but one of his good friends, and he was a collector of music. He knew all of our stuff and he turned Arlen onto our music. A few years ago, in 2015, Arlen had me come play at their festival in Uganda, so I went to Uganda. I stayed out there for two and a half months. I stayed and made an instrumental album while I was there, that they put out first. This album called Afromutations, all instrumental. They just did it on cassette tapes.
Okay, that’s cool you guys developed a personal connection. You stayed out there for a while, you worked. Like, he obviously cares about your music, it’s not just something where they’re just tryna hit and run..
Riddlore: Yeah, no, he’s a fan! He’s a big fan of CVE.
Awesome. So do you feel that this collection, We Represent Billions, is a good starting point for people who want to understand CVE and all of its various permutations?
Riddlore: Yeah, I think it is!
Is there just anything you’d like to say about your work as we wrap up?
Riddlore: Not a whole lot, really. We got through most of it, except that we’re still putting out music and there’s an album that we just finished up, that’s being mixed, a new album that should be out soon. We finished it probably about two months ago, we’re just tryna get all the mixing as tight as possible before we drop it. You know, we haven’t stopped. We’re still here.